Self-driven cars: Google, Apple, BMW, Mercedes battle for the brain

  • Suveen Sinha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 11, 2016 09:27 IST
After the first crash caused by a self-driven car in Google’s hometown, it’s safe to say that the era of self driving cars is upon us. (File Photo)

A Google self-driving car crashed into a bus in the company’s home town, Mountain View, California, on Valentine’s Day. Footage of the accident, just released, shows the bus driver was not at fault.

That makes this the first crash caused by a self driving car in years of public road tests. Google admitted as much. Yet, our love affair with them continues unabated. It’s safe to say that the era of self driving cars is upon us.

There are several reasons why they enjoy widespread support. Under a provocative title, “Why you shouldn’t be allowed to drive”, Time magazine listed a few: self-driving cars are here (four states in the United States have legalised them), a computer is a better driver than a human (never says yes to a fourth chardonnay, never convinces itself that weed improves its driving), and the economic and safety effects will be staggering.

The writer, Matt Vella, admits to bias, since a minivan driver in a hurry ran him down two years ago. But that should take nothing away from the safety debate. Maruti Suzuki India’s CEO Kenichi Ayukawa said in a recent interview that the issue of safety was not only about the product. “People have to follow traffic rules and avoid committing road accidents.”

Self-driving cars need not be built from the scratch. The Google car that crashed was actually a Lexus SUV. Google installed stuff like radar, sensors, cameras, and computers on it to make it drive itself. That has widened the fray, with non-automotive, technology companies like Google taking the lead in their development.

Google's self-driving Lexus drives along street during a demonstration at Google campus in Mountain View, California. (AP)

If Google is going there, can Apple be far behind? The Guardian reported last August that Apple was building a self-driving car and scouting for locations to test it. Apple, true to form, says its car will be the ultimate mobile device. Which it can be. Cars are not just about engineering, they are as much about expertise in design and product, areas in which Apple bows to no one. China’s Tencent, an internet company, and Foxconn, a contract manufacturer to Apple for the iPhone, have joined hands to make smart electric vehicles. There is no carmaker in their alliance.

Carmakers have woken up to it. Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have obtained licences to test self-driving cars in California. BMW’s 100th anniversary is a lot about self-driving cars. It is talking about a future in which half the chaps in its R&D would be computer programmers. In a curious way, that makes sense. Apple, which already has a lot of computer programmers, is said to be hiring automotive engineers. Soon, the two may have very similar R&D wings.

BMW’s concern is more about FOMO, the fear of missing out. It does not want to be cast aside from the “brain” part of carmaking, to be reduced to just a body maker. It has come up with a new concept car, whose entire front windshield is an augmented reality display. It may be years by the time this car gets into production, if it gets into production, but the concept shows off BMW’s technology capability. Its board member for R&D, Klaus Froehlich, told news agency Reuters that his task is to preserve BMW’s business model without surrendering it to an internet player. It doesn’t want to become a Foxconn, delivering only metal bodies to Apple.

...and the crashed one. (AP)

Whoever wins the battle for the brain in cars, India will be one of the biggest gainers. Not that our two desi auto companies, Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra, are close to making self-driving cars. They haven’t mentioned the word. But who knew that Jaguar Land Rover, another name for luxury, would one and be owned by Tata Motors, seldom a name for premium.

Imagine if we were to get driver-less cars. All Indians who can afford a driver hire one. Few among us have a great love for driving. We would rather have someone opening our doors and going a kilometre away to park after dropping us at the door. We are not like the Americans, who have cars at the centre of their popular culture, as showcased in numerous Hollywood movies.

Thank God for that small mercy. The usual Indian – those who have to drive their cars – thinks of himself as the best driver in the world, and of every other driver as either a maniac (those who overtake him) or a loser (those who drive so slow they block the lane). We put up hoardings to persuade people to stick to their lanes, but few do. And when mixed up in an accident, we find innovative reasons to blame the other.

An algorithm-controlled computer can do better. Look at the road accident data humans pile up each year. Just as important, the footage of the Google car crashing into the bus does not show any road rage. No one took out a country-made gun.

The author tweets as @suveensinha

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